WASHINGTON — On Tuesday, the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee moved the Martha Wright-Reed Just and Reasonable Communications Act of 2021 (S. 1541) out of committee after a markup. Introduced last year by Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D–Illinois), the bill advanced with an amendment agreed to by prison-phone-justice advocates and the National Sheriffs’ Association. The bill would restore the FCC’s authority to regulate all prison and jail calls and stop prison-telecom corporations from charging incarcerated people and their loved ones predatory rates.
The bill is named in honor of Mrs. Martha Wright-Reed, who fought for affordable prison call rates for more than 20 years. Phone calls were the only way Wright-Reed could stay in touch with her grandson while he was incarcerated. As a blind elderly woman, she could not write letters or travel long distances to visit him.
The Martha Wright-Reed Just and Reasonable Communications Act would allow the FCC to address the predatory prices that incarcerated people and their loved ones have had to pay to communicate with each other. The legislation clarifies the FCC’s authority to regulate all prison and jail calls. In 2017, a federal court limited the agency’s authority over intrastate calls and held that the agency could regulate only interstate calls.
Worth Rises, Color Of Change, the United Church of Christ Media Justice Ministry, Free Press Action, The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, the National Consumer Law Center, Public Knowledge and New America’s Open Technology Institute commend Sen. Duckworth for her efforts to advance this important legislation on a bipartisan basis as it promises to improve the lives of people across the country. The Duckworth amendment, which reinforces the FCC’s obligations under the Administrative Procedure Act, required advocates to make mild concessions but also secured the crucial support of the National Sheriffs’ Association.
For far too long, families across the country have suffered the high costs and notoriously unjust commercial practices of the prison-telecom industry. In an era in which improved technology and more choices have reduced communication prices for many people outside the carceral system, we cannot allow people’s families to be burdened with rates and fees reminiscent of the 1990s and early 2000s. For years, many families have had to choose between putting food on the table and staying in touch with loved ones. For the 2.7 million children with an incarcerated parent, this can mean forgoing phone calls that could help them maintain healthy relationships.
“The prison-telecom industry has managed to avoid regulation for far too long, and families have paid the exorbitant price,” said Worth Rises Executive Director Bianca Tylek. “We are glad to see the Senate finally taking steps toward correcting this injustice by advancing the Martha Wright-Reed Just and Reasonable Communications Act and ensuring that the FCC can put an end to the predatory call rates charged in our nation’s prisons and jails. While we would have preferred the bill be marked up in its original form, today’s amendment reflects cooperative efforts across the aisle with all stakeholders. We look forward to continuing to work with Senator Duckworth, who has passionately led the charge on this issue, to advance this legislation through the Senate and hope that today’s committee action can inspire the House to advance Representative Rush’s Martha Wright Prison Phone Justice Act.”
“This deal marks an important step toward keeping thousands of incarcerated people and their loved ones connected,” said Scott Roberts, senior director of criminal justice and democracy campaigns at Color Of Change. "Two years into the pandemic, as families continue struggling to stay in touch, prison-telecommunications companies are still getting rich off of outrageous fees for phone calls. The Martha Wright-Reed Act would allow for much-needed caps on those fees and provide relief to the countless Black families being targeted by these businesses and the prison system. We’re excited to see the bill gaining momentum, and look forward to working with members of Congress to get this passed.”
“Each step forward toward lower communication costs for incarcerated people and their loved ones is another step on the long path toward justice,” said Cheryl A. Leanza, policy advisor to the United Church of Christ Media Justice Ministry. “This legislation, if it becomes law, will place an important check on the outrageous and predatory rates imposed on families that are already struggling and provide a measure of sanity in a completely broken marketplace. We commend Senators Duckworth and Portman and the bill’s other co-sponsors for their leadership, and thank the Senate Commerce Committee for its bipartisan vote to move this bill forward. The compromise amendment restores the Federal Communications Commission’s authority to adopt just and reasonable rates, as it should. We look forward to positive votes in the full Senate and in the House, where Rep. Rush’s bill, H.R. 2489, is ready to move forward.”
“Prison-phone rates are astronomical, with the price of a local 15-minute phone call costing up to $25 in some states,” said Free Press Action Policy Counsel Leo Fitzpatrick. “Many families simply can’t afford these rates, which force them to make impossible choices. The pandemic has exacerbated this suffering — and the for-profit prison-industrial complex will continue to exploit people unless and until Congress and the FCC take action. We urge the full Senate to pass this legislation and for the House to pass Representative Bobby Rush’s bill as soon as possible.”
“We applaud Senator Duckworth for spearheading this commonsense bipartisan bill to eliminate these predatory practices that have plagued incarcerated individuals,” said Wade Henderson, interim president and CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. “For far too long, families have been forced to make incredibly difficult and unfair financial choices just to speak to their loved ones on the phone. We urge Congress to swiftly pass the Martha Wright-Reed Just and Reasonable Communications Act.”
“For too long, families have been forced to pay inflated, unaffordable rates to stay connected with their incarcerated loved ones,” said Ariel Nelson, staff attorney at the National Consumer Law Center. “We applaud Senator Duckworth for leading the effort to stop these predatory practices, which disproportionately harm families and communities of color, and urge the full Senate to pass the Martha Wright-Reed Just and Reasonable Communications Act.”
“Everyone has a right to connect with loved ones at reasonable prices,” said Public Knowledge Senior Fellow Al Kramer. “These unconscionable phone rates impose undue hardship on many families, forcing them to choose between connecting with incarcerated loved ones or putting food on the table. We applaud Senator Duckworth for her efforts to ensure that no one should ever have to make that choice and are pleased there is a path to move this legislation forward.”
“The telecom industry is predatory already for many who can’t afford expensive service, and this is even worse for those incarcerated, whose families and loved ones have to pay unimaginable prices to keep in touch with them,” said Claire Park, policy analyst at New America’s Open Technology Institute. “We’re excited to see the Martha Wright-Reed Act move forward so that no one will have to choose again between affording lifesaving medicine or calling their family.”